THE CREATIVE FESTIVAL
longer we gaze at the blot, the larger it looms before
the sight. A circle of men are seated about their
ale-bowl, and gods are born; men fall to wrestling, or
tell true stories, and the gods feel the blood flowing
more powerfully through their veins. The sacrificial
feast embraces heaven and earth.
wonder that mighty events proceed from men's gathering
in the blot hall, for the blot is life itself,
concentrated in the festive moment as a ball of
strength. The concentration is felt in the all-pervading
holiness, which is at once great power and extreme risk.
We know that the soul is a homogeneous whole, and the
fate of the hamingja is at any time bound up with all
its manifestations, so that a single word or a single
act may involve fatal consequences; if a ring breaks or
a beast falls dead, if a kinsman dies, or taunting words
are levelled against the kin, it is a sign that luck has
been broken, and more mishap will follow if the unluck
is not checked. The unity of man's soul is so absolute
that there is no distinction possible between misfortune
and sin. We may express the fact of decay from within,
and say that weakness and ill hap are guilt caused by
the hamingja being vitiated; or we may look at matters
from without, and say that sin is a breach opening to
the centre of the soul and showing that the hamingja had
a flaw which was sure to manifest itself sooner or
later. In sin and suffering the unhealthiness of a man
reveals itself; the unluck lurking within his
constitution “comes forth”, as the old saying goes.
a man shapes his future by all he does, but his actions
increase immensely in importance at the great moments of
the feast, when man is filled with more soul than
ordinarily and the whole hamingja acts immediately with
all its might through all he says and does. He is
immensely strong, and must therefore be proportionately
careful not to compromise his strength. If he be tainted
with sin when in the state of holiness, the effects will
be dangerous, perhaps fatal, because the act immediately
involves the whole hamingja; if he be touched by
anything unheore, such as witchery or putrefaction, the
consequences will spread to the core of life at once.
the festival, men are raised to the highest pitch of
life; through the blot, all the hamingja is called forth
and made to fill the participants and their
surroundings. The blot creates gods. When Floki bloted
the ravens he did something more than uniting the ravens
with men; he made them his gods. The requisite condition
was that he should be able to concentrate his whole
personality and that of all those belonging to him in
the animals. Behind the simple words: “he held a great
blot,” lies the fulness of life; a party with festive
shouting, with the renewal of the past, with ale and
vows. “There where the blot had been, they built a
cairn” as a sign for those who should later come to
the spot to tread cautiously, for it was holy; a
hamingja had come down into the spot and made it a god's
one sense, it may be said with some truth that man
creates his gods in the festival; viewing the matter
from another aspect, we may with equal truth aver that
the gods create man in the blot — neither proposition,
however, contains the whole truth. The character of the
feast lies in the fact that individual men are
completely set aside or disappear, and their place is
taken up for the time by that which is supreme,
ever-felt reality: the clan or its hamingja, its past
and present and future ages in one.
primitive experience, life is always divided into two
strata. Behind the living circle of men and behind their
daily occupations lies a fund of strength on which they
are constantly drawing. The happenings and events of
everyday routine constitute but a small section of life,
so that the life of actual men and their doings extend
backwards into a great depth of existence. This
principle does not depend on speculation, as is apparent
from its finding a natural vent in practical action and
religious customs; it is simply experience working in
accordance with all other experiences. To us man is a
single individual, shut in by the bounds of birth and
death and circumscribed as against his neighbours by the
limits of physical personality; and personality, in the
sense of character, means, according to the conditions
of our existence, the sum of experience which man is
able to store up in his isolated brain in a short span
of years. But in primitive culture where experience is
gathered on the broad base of community instead of being
piled up in a slender obelisk on the individual, man is
an eternal personality, living through uncounted or
undefined ages of time, changing in outward
manifestation, but none the less continuous and unbroken
for the generations replacing one another. His
personality is not confined to his body, or to the
thoughts and feelings shut up within his solitary frame;
his soul is in accordance with the working of his mind
extended to ideas, emotions, ideals, traditions,
belongings which exist independently of his private
being or not being. In point of psychological fact, the
centre of his personality lies outside his body, in the
ideas and things that persist from one generation to
another, while the individual existence dissolves and
revives. In the perseverance of the family, in its
heirlooms, its land, even in its herds of cattle,
primitive men naturally see stronger manifestations of
their life than in themselves, just as, from identical
mental experiences, the monk's life is swallowed up in
the cloister and the church. We experience our being
isolated, in fact cannot help feeling the limits of our
person as the decisive gaps in existence, because the
individual represents our arrangement of the facts of
existence, the ground on which our life is built up, the
base on which our forms and institutions are founded,
the reality on which our joy and sorrow must feed. In
the same way, primitive man lives and experiences his
own eternity, arranging the facts of existence from
another end, practically and theoretically. The actual
man has his existence through derivation from the great
man of his community, and even all the men of the clan,
taken collectively at any given moment, form outwardly
but a small part of the whole hamingja. In the festival,
the source is opened, and the entire man enters into
possession, acting through all, not only the bodies and
minds of living clansmen, but through their belongings
and surroundings. The house is filled; the benches and
the pillars, the fire and the atmosphere become living.
There are no men, neither are there strictly speaking
gods, but only god or divinity.
is the reason why all words and acts are fraught with
infinite consequence; the space is filled with creation,
and every act gives birth to events to come. When men
assemble for war or sacrifice, enveloped in the power of
holiness, the future is born of their actions. It was a
custom from early times to commence a battle by a duel
between two selected champions. The two who stepped
forward in front of the warriors' line to fight out
their own battle really decided the will of the day; and
if the fate of the whole had been laid in their hands
there was nothing for the rest to do but to await the
outcome, and then either set up a shout of victory and
demand tribute, or carry off the dead man and bow to
necessity, for victory had declared itself. We are taken
nearer the blot hall by the description in Tacitus of
the preparations for war; the Germans took a captive of
the enemy people, and set him to fight with his own
weapons against one of their own men, and the result of
the duel showed them whether their luck was in the
ascendant or on the decline. Possibly the tales of
combats in front of the army are in the main reflexes of
such ritual preliminaries for going to war. But we miss
the real excitement of the scene if we merely view the
ceremony as an attempt to discern the will of the higher
powers; in the individual, a fate is striving to gain
the mastery over its opponent fate. The champion could
create victory and create defeat in the coming battle,
because he stood as the corporate representative of a
whole army's hamingja. Another rite was for the leader
of the army to fling his spear out over the enemy's
ranks before the battle began, til heilla; this
“for luck” means at once as a good omen and as the
beginning of victory. About the beginning of our era the
Hermundures were able to gain a decisive victory over
the Chatti because they dedicated the hostile army to
the gods and the whole of the spoil, horses, men and all
else to destruction.
scenes from the practice of war illustrate the
comprehensive blot in which the whole future was created
and took form according to the behaviour and movements
of the sacrificial brethren. The test of manhood, in the
game or at the vowing cup, was the pattern into which
aftertime must accurately fall. When the Norse
bridegroom struck his sword into the roof-beam and
thereby created for himself a marriage luck precisely
the depth of the scar, there is something of the old
feast-fellow about him; in all modesty he may be named
by side with Hakon who bloted and perfected the battle
within his luck, so that the ravens came flying even
before the enemy had appeared.
can reach somewhat nearer the blot hall by listening to
the Darrad Song, as it was sung at Katanes in the north
of Scotland, on the day Sigurd, earl of the Orkneys,
fell in Ireland. A man saw twelve women sitting in a
house; they were weaving with entrails for a woof and an
arrow for a shuttle, and as they wove, they sang the
spear-song, the Darradsljód:
shall ring, shields clash, axes smite upon iron.
weave Darrad's web; after we follow the prince. Where
men's shields show bloody, valkyries guard the king.
weave Darrad's web, the king's it was aforetime; forth
will we stride, storming to battle, where friends'
shall rule land who shivered on the shore; a king, a
mighty one, I promise death; now is the earl felled by
is web woven, battlefield reddened, death-tidings fare
when they had woven their web of victory, they rushed
away six to the northward, six to the south, on
horseback. The song slips from past to future, for there
where these valkyries weave there is no such thing as
time; the battle is really fought while the women are
singing, and very soon their song of victory will
“come forth” and appear on the battlefield. One of
the verses reveals the connection between this poetic
symbol and reality; the women say at last:
we sang of the young king songs of victory a many; let
us sing with strength; and let him who hears mark the
many spear-songs and tell them forth to men.”
is this king over whom the songs of victory are sung we
do not know, but one thing is certain, the valkyries
here show that they have taken the words out of the
blot-man's mouth. Not in the sense that the Darrad Song
should be a cult poem, it is rather a fantasy, conceived
in some mind where the mood of the blot-feast reigned.
The formæli of the sacrificers, the song of women at
the loom, battle-ruling valkyries and the timelessness
of fate have crystallised into a poetic picture, such as
could perhaps only be made when the poet was half
emancipated from the ancient religion. But even though
the poem strictly speaking does not contain one actual
formula, the verses are built up over the formæli, and,
in particular, it is the spirit of the formæli that
inspires the flow of the words. It is the power of the
blot which fills the women when they sing “with
strength”, for this translation is but a poor
substitute of words meaning: with the force of
the blot, good seasons and well-being are led out to
bless the coming year, but the fertility is not created
generally, as the European cannot help thinking from his
abstract presuppositions when observing primitive cult.
In the ritual man assumes the power of creating life,
but he does not conceive life as a plastic possibility
lying newly created like formless clay to be moulded
later on at will into concrete events. The creating
hamingja is individually marked by its contents and its
aims, it is not luck, but clan luck and fate aldr.
Fertility means that our fields grow and our cattle
propagate according to their kind; and only when we call
to mind primitive ideas of soul can we make the meaning
of “our” sufficiently pregnant and precise. Clan
luck means birth of children, but they are children of
our stamp in body and aspirations and traditions. Battle
luck means victory over our particular enemies, power
and supremacy in our actual disputes and ambitions, luck
on the lines laid down by the owners' individual gifts,
as we should say. Through the acts and words of the
sacrificer, not only the contents of the future but also
its form and the concatenation of its events are
preordained. Thus the formæii and the consecration of
the holy drink is seen to be in reality one, though it
seems to our eyes twofold: making the ale divine and
prescribing the aim for its power.
only the future needed creation, the past too had to be
renewed in the blot to retain its reality. The eternity
of life lay not in the fact that it had once begun, but
solely in the fact that it was constantly being begun,
so that the blot-man's sacrifice points back as well as
forward. In order to do justice to the meaning of the
blot, we must say that it not only condenses and renews
the past, but in true earnest creates it over and over
reiteration or renovation, as we should call it, is not
a repetition of an act primarily and for all time
created years or ages ago. The present re-acting is as
primary, as original as the very first acting; and the
participants are not witnesses to the deed of some hero
or god, not reproducers who revive the deed, but simply
and literally the original heroes who send fateful deeds
into the world, whether it be battles long ago or the
creation of Middle-garth. In the recitation of the
legend, in the ceremonial act, the earth is prepared for
the living of man, raised from the deep, made heore and
fruitful; through the ritual procedure the people is
born, the enemies are cast down, and honour is gained.
Be the world created, be the battle gained ever so many
times before: any subsequent creation and victory is as
original as every one of its precedents.
and history start from the blot. Time is not experienced
by primitive men in the way we feel it, as a stream
running along from the origin of all things to the end
of the universe.
Time begins over and over again. The festival forms what we should call a stage above the flow of hours and years, a sort of condensed eternity, in which past and present and future are undifferentiated and felt as immediately actual through the tension and strain of the sacrificers. And from this very beginning, time, that is the subsequent year or six months, will flow out, made pregnant with the power and the events of blot hours. Thus it is also literally true that the real deeds are done in the blot hall, the battles and the harvestings of the outer world being but the external fulfilment of actions done during feast time, or the evolving of ritual acts. The field is actually ploughed when the priest or chieftain thrusts his ploughshare into the soil and lets the oxen draw some three ritual furrows with appropriate formulæ and the recitation of the legend of the first ploughman, whatever the ceremonial may be. The battle is veritably fought and won in the war dance, or in the vow washed down with a hornful of ale, and the rest will follow as a matter of course, or will come forth, if the hamingja is able to fulfil what it proposed; and if the clansmen could not make good their endeavours when they acted in all their strength, they will not avail in the trial of material weapons.
Now we shall be able to look for the gods where they are really to be found. They are present as power in the events and as persons in the sacrificers. When the chairman acts and speaks, when his fellows follow his lead with horn and formæli, when the singer recites his verses, they are capable of making past events living before the eyes, because one and the other is the ancient hero, performs his acts and sweeps all his comrades into the flow of happenings as active performers, whether they gesticulate outwardly or not. The reciter and the ritual agent is no less the subject of the poem than the original hero himself, and no less responsible for the happy issue of his enterprise of conquering either the giants or mortal enemies. What the clan's past will be in the days to come, hangs on the victory or defeat in front of the sacrificial bowl.
This view suggests another type of history and another kind of poetry than ours. In reality, ancient history cannot be translated into our terms because it is not a theory but an experience; by saying that it is the projection of the actual upon the screen of the past we do nothing but replace fact with a travesty, setting up our system as an exclusive pattern of history. History was ever changing, inasmuch as it was plastic, but it was no less constant because it had its foundation in the clan's sober sense of the reality of its ancestors, and in its sane conscience that deeds and ancestors cannot be faked into existence. In order to act the events of the past, it was first of all necessary to own a past containing such deeds; to live the ancestors over again one must have the right of doing so, and right is, as sufficiently shown, never a formal affair in primitive society — it is only made good by proving itself a fact. But achievements did not belong to individual men, only to the hamingja, the clan personality which acted through individuals, and thus the feat may pass, as we say, from one hero to another within the bounds of kinship.
What we call poetry and myth is nothing but history. But to read the meaning of the tradition as it was handed down in the festival it is not enough to understand the words spoken or sung; the ears must be assisted by the eyes. For the participants themselves, the story was made up of acts complemented by formælis and verses. This means that we shall not be able to gather the meaning either from the words only or from the action alone; both must be taken together to bring out the whole. It is this duality which gives rise to the apparent abruptness and incoherence of all ancient and primitive poetry as long as it has not severed its connection with the festival and entered upon an independent literary career. But even when taking action and word together we shall possibly be at a loss to understand the purport without further help, for the sacrificers did not act and speak to tell a story, but to experience a fact; the plot lived within all present as something self-evident, and the procedure in the blot hall served only to call forth the past and open a way for it into new life. To us, the scenes are nothing but a series of glimpses from a play going on in the unseen and now and then breaking through the veil in moments of intense concentration.
On the other hand, we must not expect to find in the ceremonial acting a continuous tale, running on methodically from act to act, or from scene to scene. If we append the name of drama to the ritual narrative, we do so on the authority of historical development, insofar as comedy and tragedy have evolved from ritual acting on the decline of religion, but in applying our term of drama to the rites of religion we must give a new meaning to the word, because all the elements of the modern stage are lacking in the original performance. Our drama is a plot progressing within the dramatic whole; the dramatic pregnancy of a poetical subject shows its power by exploding in a sequence of serried events. In primitive drama, the theme pervades the whole performance as an ubiquitous spirit, exploding in every act and making each incident a concentrated drama in itself; though any rite may have a definite value and import of its own in the evolution of the plot, it is nevertheless inspired with the total idea, so that the legend is evident in one single gest and formula to the men initiated.
The significance of the gests is not dependent on any histrionic attitude of the performer; though mimicry may enter into the performance, the act, intensely suggestive as it is to the onlooker, need not be marked off from other acts by any dramatical flourish, whether imitative or symbolical according to our acceptation of the words. In fact, primitive drama does not rest entirely on the human performers, or in other words, there is no definite boundary between actors and theatrical properties; the god may be equally represented by a living man and religious implement, shifting from one impersonation to another during his operation. The dramatis personæ being only the hamingja in its various manifestations, it acts indiscriminately through men and their treasures; the hammer of Thor, the skull of the victim and the victim itself during subsequent stages of life and death are as much real actors as are the men who put them into different positions. Speaking dramaturgically, this means that the centre of gravity lies in the words and the acts, not in the actors and speakers.
Whereas the modern playgoer derives his pleasure from the opportunity of being initiated into alien scenes and passions, the tension, enjoyment and edification in one experienced in the sacrifice, resulted from the close familiarity with the action taking place; the scene lay within the worshipper, and whether he officiated directly or merely assisted at the rites, he was part of the drama, and not an irresponsible onlooker. The scenes enacted before his eyes made up the vital drama of life, and thus it becomes intelligible why every act was watched with jealous care and the least slip of hand or tongue drew forth an inadversion and misgiving in all concerned. The horn that created past and future events became the judge of men and the test of their righteousness, for the flaw in the luck or character of a man would come out in the highest moment and make his tongue trip on the fatal words. Now we understand that it was a matter of moment to empty the horn, so that men of merit were compelled to resign from the court when their breath became too short to drink minni properly. Now we too perceive fully the ignominy of the defeat which Thor sustained in the hall of the giant, when he was obliged to give up the horn without finishing his drink; the triumph won by the ogres was but an illusory one, because they had only been able to overcome their dreaded foe by tricking him with a horn one end of which opened into the ocean, but at the moment when the god handed the vessel back after his third attempt he felt his luck and divinity staggering under the leers of the gloating trolls.
The legend or myth has a place of its own, apart from the ritual text. In the myth, the story inherent in the acts and in the words, or rather lying at the back of the drama, is paraphrased into an explanatory tale. The legends will not tell us what happened some year or other according to chronology; in our craving for a kernel of historical truth in the myths, we naively insinuate that the myth makers ought to think in a system unknown to them, for the benefit of our annalistic studies. The myth reveals what happened when the deed was really done, viz, at the feast, where the battle was won and the earth made inhabitable; and thus the sine qua non for understanding its revelation is insight into the cult, its procedure and contents.
Apart from the central ceremony of the ale horn, the Teutonic ritual is lost, and we shall never be able to reconstruct the rites in their sequence; only the myths or rather some legends that struck the fancy of posterity are left to us, and through these tales we can only discern the ritual dimly as through a veil. The poems of the Edda and the stories retold by Snorri in his handbook for poets are far from being cult monuments and cannot even in all cases be called myths. The verses and the prose are deeply tinged by the new spirit of the viking age; and what with their love of story-telling and the ready receptivity that laid them open to the inspirations of the west, the men of the transition age created a brilliant literature out of the ancient material. But the mark of being born in the mead hall is still discernible in the style of the stories, and though the poets have woven the legends into tales, the abruptness or glimpse-like character of the ritual setting forth makes itself felt in the technique of the composer. In ritual, the scenes and verses and formulæ are episodes in which an underlying coherent theme flashes out for a moment and immediately closes upon the glimpse; in the poems, the flashes are continued into a progressive revelation, but the original mode of representation shows through in the episodic character of the telling and in the abrupt introduction of dialogue.
As a work of art, the Voluspá is at once the most advanced and the most conservative of all the Eddie poems. The author is a radically original thinker, neither Christian nor heathen; he has a philosophy, one may perhaps say a religion, of his own, and in his poem he discloses his anguish and his hope under the guise of a cosmology and an eschatology, unfolding the history of the world from the time when nothing was to the end of days, when, after sin and guilt, struggle and death, the new world and the new god rise above the horizon. It is a vision unparallelled in literature, beheld by a prophet who had been so deeply moved by the Christian apocalypse, that thoughts and musings of his own were raised out of his experiences. His anxiety at seeing the old ties of frith being dissolved by the ambitions of the crusading adventurers — brother fighting with brother each to further his own ambition, kingdoms founded on moments of conquest and kingdoms crumbling into naught by the fall of a solitary hero — springs under the fertilising heat of Christianity into a judgement of humanity; through his obscure verses he proclaims history as a progress from frith and honour into guilt, from guilt into dissolution, with every man battling against his kinsman, from dissolution through the last fight of gods and men, through universal death and destruction into a final state of peace and honour without blemish. But in constructing his picture, he makes use throughout of ancient matter, in fact of cult scenes, and by ranging the mythical scenes into a new constellation he changes their import from within and inspires them with a new meaning in regard to the whole, without materially altering the words. Thus we look through his descriptions into the blot hall as for instance in his picture of the new earth and its happiness. Then the god Hoenir can choose the omen-sticks — in these two lines is compressed the perfect state of humanity, that of the hamingja never failing to achieve its wishes and fate, always finding in the stick sure signs of its creation having succeeded; the point of the phrase lies in the verb, kjósa, which means outwardly to receive happy omens, but inwardly to have strength to create the event which breaks out into good signs. And the pregnancy of the verse intimates that this scene was the expression of victory in the ritual of the blot hall. Another picture is contained in the last verse, by the position in the poem converted into a prophecy that death shall be no more. “The gloomy drake comes flying, the glistering snake from the nether mountains, and he carries corpses in his plumes, the dead men's ravener Nidhogg; he flies past skimming the ground, now he will sink.” No doubt the wording of this verse owes its grip to the imagination of the poet and the inspiration of western visions, but the scene itself, no doubt, goes back to the ritual of the sacrifice, where the blot-men have seen the snake brushing past, conjured up by some ceremonial gest and sinking to the sound of some compelling words.
In other poems we observe the ancient ritual underlying poetical composition, as the substratum on which the poets have moulded a literary form; when for instance the Eddic description of Sigurd's dragon-killing and wooing of the sleeping woman in armour culminates in a ritual toast where she tends a horn to her deliverer and precedes his drinking with a formæli, the succession of the scenes is probably governed by the procedure of the feast. Through the poetical device we look into the blot hall at the moment when the events of the past were celebrated and made real by the circulating horn; the affinity between the literary mould and its ceremonial prototype is closer than immediately appears, because the poet indirectly describes the deeds as they happened in the festival where the reciter and the drinkers acted as impersonations of the ancient heroes. The legend or myth is passing into epic, but the underlying type has not yet been broken.
Even though the absence of all direct description prevents us from reconstructing the temporal sequence of the rites, the ritual of the feast nevertheless glimmers through the myths and the poetical vocabulary in tolerably clear outlines. The first act of the sacrifice was played in the cattle fold when the divine slaughterers went out armed with a hallowed instrument to kill the victims singled out for the feast. The dramatic intensity of the slaughtering is expressed in the myth of Thor's voyage to the giant Geirrod, in which all the incidents of the killing are translated into cosmogonic significance. Thor and his two followers force their way through many obstacles into the abode of the giant. The god has started from home without his hammer, and borrows on the road a staff from a friendly giantess, as the legend tells, thus indicating the peculiar character of the ceremonial implement used in the taking of the victim's life. Farther on, the gods are on the point of being overwhelmed by the swollen torrents rushing down from the mountains, and the dramatic character of these torrents is established by the language of the poet, who calls them the blood of the giant, or in other words the blood from the victim impersonating the foes of mankind. The god staunches the flood by some ritual action with his “staff”, the character of which is unknown; possibly it had some relation to the sacred vessel into which the holy fluid was received. After having penetrated into the cave, the god is assailed by the daughters of the giant, and nearly crushed to death against the roof; this attack he also meets with the staff — according to the myth, he sets his weapon against the rafter, and putting all his weight upon it, forces his chair down, till a mighty roar announces that he has broken the backs of the giantesses who had concealed themselves underneath. What this incident means in tangible fact relating to the ritual treatment of the victim can only be vaguely guessed at, but the meaning is unambiguous: now the victim is finally disposed of, and through the animal the enemy has been vanquished.
The next scene takes place in the blot hall, or as the myth expresses the procedure: when Thor first arrived he was shown into the goat's house, but after the feats accomplished there the giant Geirrod invited the god into the hall to take part in the games, and there were large fires burning through the length of the house. Here the crowning victory was fought, and the powers unheore utterly overcome. Geirrod took up a redhot iron bolt with a pair of tongs and hurled it at his guest, but Thor caught it as it flew, with his iron grips or gloves and sent it back, transfixing the giant together with the pillar behind which he crouched. The poem describing the achievement of the god contains in its metaphors a lucid explanation of the dramatic form in which this fight was carried out; the scathing bolt was the heart of the victim taken steaming hot from the kettle and consumed or tasted by the human incarnations of the god. By this sacrament with the vital and most sacred part of the sacrificial victim, power was assumed, and the adversaries of life cast down for ever.
The subsequent scenes clustered about the kettles in which the holy meat was boiled. The myths hint at games and beer joy: the preparation of the godly food was guarded and facilitated by a drink and a performance accompanied by sacred texts. Again and again the battle is renewed, at each point the aggression of the demons is warded off and the superiority of human luck confirmed. A legend relating to this part of the festival is reproduced in the story telling how three gods defeated the giant Thiazi. Once upon a time Odin and Hoenir and Loki went hungry during a journey and killed an ox to make a repast. They cut up the meat and made a cooking oven — evidently an archaic trait going back to an ancient mode of preparing meat by burying it in hot steam. When the gods opened the oven they were astonished at seeing that the meat was still raw, and looking round, they espied a giant watching them from a tree in the guise of an eagle. The hostile onlooker frankly admitted that he had caused the mishap and claimed admittance to the feast. But when the guest openly showed his greed by snatching up the best part of the ox, Loki in wrath struck him with a pole, the result being that one end of the pole stuck fast to the eagle and the hands of the god cleaved to the other end. Loki was trailed over stock and stone by the flying eagle, till he was mad with pain and readily complied with the giant's suggestion that he should entice the maid Ydun out from the precincts of Asgard and deliver her up to the enemy. Ydun was the goddess who guarded the youth-giving food, and at her disappearance the heads of the gods turned grey; very soon suspicion fastened upon Loki, and he was compelled to set out on a fresh expedition to steal back the maiden. The wily god changed into a falcon and succeeded in carrying away the goddess in his grip, but his flight roused the giant to pursue him in the guise of an eagle; when, however, the foe came booming over the wall of Asgard he was suddenly surrounded by flames; the gods had been ready shaving chips from their spears, and at the critical moment they set light to the heap, so that the fire flared up and scorched the wings of the intruder. — In this myth we have the ritual of the lighting of the fire, which is the means of forcing back the powers of destruction or infirmity that lurk behind all things in Middle-garth and thus keeping the creative kettleful for the maintenance of men and their luck.
In another legend it is Hrungnir, “the thief of Thrudr” (or power), the daughter of Thor, who 'is mightily vanquished. Still other cult myths explain how the would-be robber is frustrated in his designs on Freyja, the maiden with whom the light of the world is bound up. Whatever form the myths take, they indicate the background of the ceremonial battle, expressing what would happen if the holy work were not carried to a happy finish. It was this great, timeless creation during the blot, and the vanquishing of the powers of chaos thereby, that rendered gods and men lords of the world and held the giants lurking in impotent rage beyond the border. The rite confirmed the victory, and the legend celebrates the effective 'exertion.
In the struggle for world mastery, the victim impersonated the enemy, and the slaughtering represents the killing of the unheore fiends. But there is another side to the drama expressing the holiness and blessing residing in the sacrificial animal.
The myth of Thor giving his rams to be slaughtered for meat, and reviving them by a flourish of his hammer above the bones and skins, introduces us to a central scene in the killing of the victim. The animals slain were not heads of cattle picked out of the fold and killed off; they represented the holy herd that gave of its essence to the sacrificers as an inspiring and invigorating food, without incurring any loss of vitality; the life returned to its source, and gushed out in fresh abundance. Therefore it was necessary to pour out the blood of the victim in the holy place, and preserve certain parts of the bodies as the seat of the regenerative power. The fact that one of Thor's rams limped because one of the eaters had broken a bone to suck the marrow shows that the bones of the animal sacrificed were commonly held sacred and inviolable. The myth draws out the inner meaning — as is its wont — by pointing out what would be the result if the ritual failed to achieve its aim or were made ineffective by neglect of some creative requisite. Slaughtering was, in fact, so far from being an infringement of the cattle's luck and persistence that it involved a new birth to the herd as well as to the men partaking of its meat; the herd was born through the ceremonial consecration of the victim by the hammer or some other object being waved above the carcass.
The myth obviously gives a realistic description of the scene: the bones were collected and laid out for blessing on the skins. We may draw the further inference that the skull was given a prominent place in the hall during the feast, and that it played a part in the dramatic proceedings. This conjecture is corroborated by some hints in ancient literature as to a mythical head which Odin consulted in hours of need, and it acquires still more force by some declamatory words of Gregory the Pope; the holy father is shocked by the unseemly behaviour of the Lombards who are said to run round the head of a ram, celebrating it with songs of abomination.
It is necessary to kill the animal, because the creation and upholding of men and their world is dependent on its life-nourishing flesh; but imperative though the measure may be, the assault on the vehicle of the sacred hamingja nevertheless involves not only a terrible risk but also an act of aggression bordering on outrage, nay it would be sheer sacrilege if it could not be justified and expiated through subsequent acts of blessing. The myth of Thiazi alludes to expiatory ceremonies whose character is unknown; after having told how the giant was killed, it proceeds to relate that his daughter Skadi armed herself and appeared among the gods in full panoply of war to demand weregild for her father. The gods accorded her full restitution by offering her a divine husband, and we are elsewhere told that Thrymheim, the seat of the old giant Thiazi, is now occupied by his daughter Skadi.
In a burlesque in which a zealous Christian has travestied a scene in the ritual, the Volsi story, we learn that sometimes at least the reproductory organ of a horse was used in a ceremony implying impregnation; the scrappy and rather poor piece of satire is of considerable interest as giving us an inkling of the place poetic formulæ occupied in the blot. Everybody present, we are told, took the object in his hand and uttered a rhythmical formæli alluding to procreation, ending with the words: Moernir receive this bloting. The Volsi ritual is represented by the author as a rural worship invented by some benighted heathens in an outlying farmhouse; more probably it is a reminiscence of an act in the sacrifice representing the real begetting when the fertilising seed entered the wombs of women and beasts, thus making any subsequent impregnation fruitful.
The preparation of the beer cask, or in earlier times the mead vat, is only commemorated in a single legend that tells how Odin tricked the giant Suttung out of the mead, by boring his way into the cave where Suttung kept the precious fluid, and beguiling his daughter by protestations of affection. This story, handed down in two versions, one fragmentary and abrupt in Eddic verse, the other retold or rather recast by Snorri into a humorous tale, can do little more than hint at the existence of an elaborate ritual, but scarcely gives us any clue to its character.
But the ritual did not stop short at the battle with the giants. In the midst of the hall, the whole world was dramatically exposed, arching its heaven over broad expanses with far flowing rivers; the earth and all the waters of the earth were contained in the kettles and the fireplace, and over it waved the branches of the world tree Yggdrasil, shading with its wide arms the homes of gods and men and giants. The hall and the fireplace, as it appeared to the blot-fellows who saw the underlying reality before the external appearance, is described by Snorri on the authority of ancient verses. The boughs of the ash extend out over all the world and reach across the expanse of heaven; downwards it strikes three wide-spreading roots, one is among the gods, the second among the giants and the third ends in the realm of the dead. Under the roots are wells, one is the well of wisdom, another, the Urdarbrunn, is the well of life and fate.
To understand what ancient eyes saw we must replace our geographically and spacially confined experience with the reality of primitive senses. The megin of the earth, its largeness and breadth, is contained in a handful of soil, heaped up on or around the fireplace, the stem and foliage of the tree is altogether present in the slightest branch; just as any part, such as for instance the skull, exhibits the whole living animal, its flanks quivering with the beats of life, its legs vibrating with unleapt bounds — nay exhibits the whole species of panting and leaping beasts. The scene describes at once the tutelary tree standing in front of the homestead with its deep well underneath, and the ritual counterpart of the tree and the well now transplanted into the cult hall, because the two are identical; both are holy, i. e. the prototypes or teeming wombs of the world, and through the power of the feast the entire hamingja is concentrated in the sacred spot, so that it becomes not only the protoplast of all things existing, but the world, excelling the mere space of earth and heaven in profound reality.
But the world is not laid out on the hearth as something simply existing. As the ritual proceeds, the earth rises and shapes itself into the happy abode of man, and the heavenly lights go forth and arrange themselves into their daily procession. As the victim is cut up and disposed into the kettles, the primeval giant Ymir is killed by the gods, who create the earth from his body, the waters from his blood, and heaven from his skull. Next the race of men, or rather our race, takes its rise by the process described in the Voluspá: three gods came to the house and found on the land Ask and Embla, powerless and without fate; Odin gave spirit, Hoenir wit, Lodur the sap of life and the flush of health, lá ok lito góða. How the latter part of creation was ritually carried out is suggested by the language of the scalds, in a poetical metaphor, coined in reference to the ritual, the contents of the horn being alluded to under the same appellation lá — which is used in the Voluspá to designate the sap of life. A further commentary is furnished by an Eddic verse in which Odin rejoices because he has brought the mead from the realm of the giant and placed it on the “rim of the sanctuary of men”, he exults in having tasted “luckily acquired colours”. The ritual significance of the phrases discloses itself in the recurrence of the term litr that is employed in the verse of the Voluspá.
The creation of the world through the cutting up of the victim was no doubt seconded by other pictorial incidents; the myths hint at white soil being used to “pour over the roots of Yggdrasil”, and in a catalogue poem it is said that the earth is called aurr by the great gods, which probably means that aurr is a ritual designation. We learn too that “megin of earth” goes to make the ale strong and health inspiring, and from this hint we learn that the earth must be represented in the ritual, if the blot were to be full and complete.
According to the creation legend, the world arose in the middle of Ginnungagap, the gaping void between the glowing half in the south and the icy northern part; the sparks from the heat collided with the venomous drops from the cold and the mist ascending from the glacial rivers, and the whole congealed into a mass of matter like the slag from a fire. The gods placed the body of the slain giant Ymir in the midst of Ginnungagap to build the inhabitable world, and the flying embers fixed themselves in the heavens and became stars and luminaries. This legend is the text of the creation drama that takes place on the hearth, in the play of the fire and the soot encircling the sacred kettles, with the creative victim placed in the middle.
Now the inner truth of the Voluspá shines forth. The abrupt pictures of its first part are glimpses of scenes from the blot hall, and from this profoundly suggestive material the poet constructs a progressive historical and eschatological drama. He opens with the time when nothing was, neither sand nor sea nor cool waves; there was no earth, no heaven on high, only Ginnungagap and never a blade of grass. It was in the times of yore when Ymir lived. Then Bor's Sons lifted up the earth and the gods who created Middle-garth; the sun shone from the south on the flags of the hall, then the ground was covered with green leeks. The sun knew not its place, the moon knew not its megin. The gods went to the seats of fate and gave night and morning, midday and evening their names. Thus the mighty cosmological drama opens. The verses open a view not into the chaos of nowhere and nothing, where later Christian poets beat the void with the wings of imagination, but into the clearly defined surroundings of the blot fellows. The new sun strikes the “flags of the hall” with its first beams; in the verses relating how the gods lifted up the land and went to the seats of commanding fate, the words have an exact and at the same time far-reaching dramatic import.
Possibly the myths have in their late forms been affected by the influence of Christian creation legends, but the modifications have not eaten into their core, and they still bear the unmistakable stamp of living ritual. Our analysis, however, is apt to be warped by our traditional ideas of creation, once for all, out of naught, which presuppose a period in chronological time when the world existed only as a future possibility. In primitive language, creation means a becoming like all former becomings, an ever-new and ever-repeated organisation which makes existence real and reliable. Our conclusion that before something came into being a nothing must have prevailed, has no place, because the premises that make this inference necessary to our chronologically progressive thought were lacking in primitive experience. To be of value, the answers men give to their problems must be latent in the question; to us the natural problem is: what was before the present world was made? primitive experience prompts the query: what would be if creation failed? This gap out of which the world rises by the mighty doings of the gods is, like the robbery by the giants, the dim possibility of chaos which is constantly warded off by the blot. Creation means victory over the formless destructive powers, it means making the world heore, and therefore the cosmological drama opens with the killing of the giant and with the destruction which the drowning torrents of his blood wreaks upon his kin.
The ritual included an act which may be called the hallowing or fructifying of the treasures. Gold, whether a ring or some other precious object, was obviously placed on the hearth or dipped in the kettles, as is indicated by some stray lines as well as by the stock metaphors of the poets. Gold is conventionally called the flame of the deep or the fire of the river, meaning that it is born and made lucky by being laved in the prototype rivers flowing through the world from the kettles; this ritual incident is mentioned in a verse of the Grimnismál, saying that the rivers flow round the “hoard of the gods”. What part this manipulation of the gold played in the cosmogonic drama we cannot say for sure, but knowing the profound significance of the treasures as vehicles of the hamingja, and bearing in mind the embracing width of the clan's luck, we may form some guesses as to the representative import of gold in the cosmological drama. It may have impersonated the riches of men rising from the primeval root of things implying all its manifestations from the fertility of the soil to the sun. The effect of the ritual is suggested by the myth of Draupnir, the ring of the gods, which was placed on the pyre of Balder and sent back from the underworld with the power of dripping fresh rings in the night.
As to the appearance or pageantry of the drama we have no indication beyond that contained in the terminology of the myths. The placing of earth on the hearth and the putting on of the kettles, manipulation with the treasures and skulls and passes with the “hammer of Thor” as well as the lifting of the horn, were actions fraught with meaning, but we can know nothing of the manner in which they were performed. And as to the words accompanying the acts, we can only guess that they ranged from short verses or measured formulæ to recitation of genealogies and chanting of legendary songs. We may perhaps conclude from the traditional form of the Eddic poems that the ritual partly proceeded in the form of responses. From the fact that the sequence of question and answer regularly crops up in the neighbourhood of ritual passages, we need not draw the inference that the blot was carried on catechetically, but no doubt this mode of conveying mythological lore has established itself on the base of some time-honoured allocution; we know how the chairman “signed” the horn, and rendered the draught eventful by his formæli, and from this picture we may imagine a scene where the fellows watched their brethren handling the ritual objects and waiting for the formula which explained and completed the act.
The view we get through myth and language is rich in suggestions but no less blurred in outlines, and a representation must be modelled on the material; a description is the truer when it opens up the depth of pathos and significance contained in the blot without any arbitrary hardening of the contours.
Such are the main themes of the ritual, varying no doubt in details and pictures from one place to another, but identical in ideas and in general character. And into this ceremonial scheme entered the history of the clan. The voices of the ancestors were heard blending with the speaking of the gods; from the fight with the giants, the deeds of former generations dealing with mortal enemies sprang forth. All the acts of the ritual were probably instinct with a collateral historical meaning, clearly understood by the men in whom the past was a living plastic force, whether it only asserted itself in implications or shaped itself into direct allusions to familiar reminiscences or broke forth in recitation and poems of praise. In this form, the ancestral traditions of the Volsungs are handed down to posterity; the achievements that laid the foundation of the clan's fame and power are perpetuated in the legend of the ancestor's fight with the dragon Fafnir and his conquest of the fateful hoard of Andvari. The historical proportions of the tale are intimated by the incidents: Before Fafnir turned into a serpent and crept upon his gold, he had killed his father to get possession of the riches that had come from the gods, and Sigurd, the dragon slayer, is reared by Regin, the brother of Fafnir, to execute the revenge pined for and yet execrated by the clansman. When the deed has been accomplished by Sigurd, while Regin hides his head behind the bushes, the dark double dealing schemes of the instigator, who necessarily resents the murder of his brother, are revealed to the hero by the birds twittering over his head, and he boldly completes his work by sending the plotter on the heels of his brother. Then he loads the treasures on his horse, leaps on its back and rides forth to adventures brave and new. The marks of the family tradition are evident, but the historical events are disguised out of all recognition, because they are reproduced in the setting of the blot. The legend does not merely reflect the external facts, but retells the story as it unfolded itself through ritual words and deeds during the feast, when the feats were made real in the presence and power of the gods. In the Nordic poem, Fafnir and Regin are called rime-cold giants, which means that their lives are taken in the killing of the giant through the slaughtering of the sacrificial victim. Further, Sigurd cuts out the heart and broils it over the fire, and he drinks the blood of the slain — a scene which reproduces the ritual tasting of the intestines and the sprinkling of the sacred blood that ensures complete casting down of the enemies of man, whether human or demoniacal. Though the poem as it now stands has become a mere story, it indicates in the form of its telling how the two sides, the one which we call historical, and the other which we style ritual, did coalesce in the drama of the blot hall: purely human outbursts of grief and defiance and triumph sprout organically forth from ceremonial manipulations with the flesh of the victim and the fluid of the beer cask.
In the history of the sacrificial hail, the individual warrior is sunk in the god, or, which is the same thing, in the ideal personification of the clan, the hero. This form of history causes endless confusion among later historians, when they try their best to rearrange the mythical traditions into chronological happenings and the deeds of the clan into annals and lists of kings, and the confusion grows to absurdity when rationalistic logicians strive by the light of sound sense to extricate the kernel of history from the husks of superstition. In a kingly figure like the famous Froda of the Heathobards, political deeds are inextricably mixed up with ritual incidents. On one side he is an earthly king pure and simple, when he wars and intermarries with the neighbouring house of the Scyldings, on the other he is a personification of the peace ruling through feast time, when he is extolled as the ideal peace-maker. During his reign, we are told, the country was so safe that a ring would lie untouched for years on the high road, and no killing was heard of; even the avenger would suffer his brother's slayer to go unharmed. The giver of peace is nevertheless no other than the mighty warrior king: his reign is appraised through the terms derived from the festival. No clear line marks off the god from the prince, and the historian who starts from modern principles will be led on according to his point of view, either to interpret the human element as disguised myth or to force ritual to give up a symbolic history; and in both cases he will be landed in insoluble difficulties. This incongruity, caused by the fact that history is transcribed in ritual language, cleaves to the whole mass of ancient legends, and makes it a bone of contention between the profane historian and the student of the history of religion, as long as religion and history of life are considered as two separable constituents.
In primitive culture, religion stands in touch with everyday reality. In the feast, the whole of existence, with its working and fighting, fishing and hunting, eating and begetting, is lifted up and intensified without being spiritualised out of its matter-of-fact substantiality. There is a poetry of life lived through and not merely imagined and sung: poetry and art have a tangible form in the festival which includes tragedy and farce, entailing the fullest enjoyment because life and success depend on the play and the jests. This artistic principle allows of no differentiating between the poetic or imaginary world of fine feelings and the drab prose of daily existence; a purely æsthetic valuation of beauty and art, such as became necessary when religion was severed from life, is inconceivable among ancient and primitive peoples, where religion is the transfiguration of the totality of life and its needs. The words of poetry are beautiful and inspiring when they are real and react upon the innermost springs of existence and create luck; the verses are powerful and useful when they move the hearts of men, steeling their courage and inspiring their hopes. The poetry of words is nothing but the language of life when it pulsates most strongly and fully, it is the language of the feast, and thus imbued with the spirit of the blot; its metaphors reproduce the suggestive pictures of the sacrificial hall, and therefore it becomes to us a repository of religious ideas and practices.
There is one department within the region of cult which has a character of its own, namely the ritual designed to form a connecting link between men and the yellow-haired goddess of the glebe. The ritual of the Teutons, like that of their cousins, the Homeric Greeks and the Vedic people, centres in the cattle luck, and in many regions the herds remained the principal stock of wealth. Goats are frequently mentioned from various places of the Teuton territory as forming the substance of the sacrificial feast, and in myth and ritual the ram occupies a prominent place to the exclusion of the heifer; later on, the meadows of greater folk were filled with cows and even horses, but in poorer regions small cattle continued to be the main support of the population.
But the art of making the earth fruitful by tearing her body with the ploughshare and impregnating her with living seed had come in from the south in prehistorical times. And in primitive culture the introduction of new implements and methods involves spiritual expansion as well as material progress. The use of the plough and the knowledge of its religious content and ritual mode of handling are inseparable, for no man can obtain results by mere mechanical manipulation. Learning husbandry means being initiated into a ritual, and so the ceremonies of the corn spread through Germany and Scandinavia in very early times; agricultural rites were framed into the customary blot and vitally fused with the ancient acts and formulæ, stamping them more or less superficially according as husbandry became the predominant occupation or merely played an accessory part in the life of the people.
In the broad fields of southern Scandinavia and of central Sweden, the influence of the rites on the fields was more extensive, and coloured the feasts more intensely than in Norway. We must bear in mind that agriculture was not introduced once for all; rather it filtered in, one invention after another, each carrying a fuller ritual along with it. This immigration of rites has continued for thousands of years, as we learn from the modern customs of the peasants, which make clear that the influence of Mediterranean religion was not exhausted by the victory of Christianity, but went on through the Middle Ages, forcing its way sometimes in spite of the clergy but more often perhaps helped on by the formal reception of pre-Christian rites into the routine of the church. In Sweden, the hereditary blot was so effectively coloured by agricultural additions of the alien element, that certain princely families called their god by the name of Lord, Freyr; in the pedigree of the Ynglings, who may in earlier times have resided in the south of Scandinavia but later at least founded a kingdom at Upsala, Frey is placed immediately above their ancestor, Yngvi.
The more elaborate ritual carried with it ceremonies strongly tinged with sexual passion and feverish emotion. In the traditions of the North, the rites at Upsala stand out as eminently dramatic and exuberant in character, filled with lascivious dances, obscene songs and the killing of human victims — according to late compilers of historical information, such as Saxo and Adam of Bremen.
The drift of the ritual is sufficiently apparent from these intimations to warrant close affinity with the customs well known on the shores of the Mediterranean; but our material does not enable us to reconstruct the actual procedure. From Tacitus we catch a glimpse of processions in which the goddess Nerthus rode on a wain through the district, greeted with ebullitions of joy wherever she went, and finally disappearing in the gloom of the grove, where mysterious rites of washing and killing took place. From Norway comes a most edifying tale of some amusing and at the same time improving adventures that befell a Norwegian youth in Sweden. The run-away falls in with a handsome priestess and is by her dressed up to impersonate the god Frey in his progress round the country, after he has manfully punched the ancient devil of a malicious idol to atoms; the new god is very determined in his demands to have the victims commuted into offerings of gold and portable property, and gladdens the hearts of his worshippers by getting his bride with child. At last he escapes, and not only succeeds in removing the spoil, but ensures a happy enjoyment of his riches withal by being baptized. — The controversial character of the tale renders its value doubtful as evidence, beyond the fact that ritual journeys of the Nerthus type were common in some parts of Sweden and unfamiliar in Norway.
The legend of the war between the Ases and the Vanes bears upon a conflict between two clans or peoples differing in matters of ritual, the Vanes being a tribe of Njord-worshippers or tillers of the soil par excellence. This people must have been materially and religiously prominent in some part of Scandinavia, since their name has passed into tradition as the appellation of the godly race connected with tillage and harvesting. Frey and Njord — closely akin to the Nerthus of Tacitus — and their kin are termed Vanes or Vane-gods in the mythology of the Middle Ages, their worshippers being lost in oblivion. The myths likewise couple these gods with the ideas of great wealth, thus perpetuating the memory of the prosperity and luxury of the peoples tilling broad fields, and especially of these unlocated Vanes who probably at some time or other had their home in Sweden, and combined husbandry with profitable expeditions at sea and merchandising on a rather large scale. The myth of the marriage between Skadi, an ancestral goddess of northern Norway, and Njord, substantiated by some hints in historical literature, imply that the part of Norway around Drontheim had some intimate intercourse with the Frey-worshipping folk in Sweden.
In the wake of the agriculture and fertilisation ritual followed naturally the swine, which is everywhere the household animal of the peasant. Just as Thor, the personification of the indigenous powers, is inseparable from the ram, so Frey is everywhere accompanied by the boar. In the circles of Frey-worshippers, and wider still, the boar might replace small cattle at the sacrificial meal and take over the ancient rites of the sacrificial blot.
The ecstatic tension of the fertilising ceremonies, spanning over the extremes of sentimental longing and sensuous transport, such as we find it elsewhere among tillers of the soil, who go forth and weep bearing precious seed and bring in their sheaves with rejoicing, is reflected in the myths relating to Frey, which bear a character curiously out of harmony with the soberness of social life among the typical Teutons. In one of the Eddic poems, the Skirnismál, the fervour, at once languid and ardent, of the rites which golden-haired earth excited in her lovers is turned into a divine love poem unparallelled in Northern literature.